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After rapid escalation, Israel, Egypt and Hamas try to hold their fire

JERUSALEM (JTA) — For now, it seems, a tentative ceasefire is holding.

But after five days of violence that saw a deadly terrorist attack near Eilat, intense rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into southern Israel and new tremors in the Egypt-Israel relationship, Israeli leaders are keeping an anxious eye on the state’s southern borders.

It is still unclear who exactly was behind the Aug. 18 attacks that left eight Israelis dead when terrorists ambushed two buses and two cars on Israeli roads near the southern resort town of Eilat, on the Egyptian border. Three Egyptian soldiers were inadvertently killed in the chaos as some of the assailants fled into Egyptian territory.

The Egyptian soldiers’ deaths sparked angry demonstrations in Cairo, where crowds converged on the Israeli Embassy, ripping down the Israeli flag and calling on Egypt’s leaders to recall their ambassador to Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces said the gunmen came from Gaza but traveled through Egypt’s poorly guarded Sinai Peninsula to reach their target some 150 miles away, near Eilat. The Gaza terrorist group the Popular Resistance Committees, which works closely with Hamas, originally was identified as responsible for the attacks, and Israeli jets responded by pounding targets in Gaza, killing leaders of the group and blowing up their infrastructure. The IDF carried out more than 15 strikes in Gaza, and several Palestinians were reported killed.

But the Popular Resistance Committees denied involvement, as did Hamas — rare for terrorist groups normally eager to take credit for attacks against Israelis. On Tuesday, the Washington Times reported that a previously unknown group affiliated with al-Qaida based in the Sinai may have carried out the attacks.

All the while, rocket crews in Gaza fired barrages at southern Israel, hitting homes and a yeshiva and killing an Israeli man in Beersheba. In all, more than 100 rockets were fired at Israel.

Facing escalation, all sides tried to tamp things down by early this week.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who immediately after the Aug. 18 attacks said they "demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there," issued a rare Shabbat-day statement apologizing for the Egyptian soldiers’ deaths.

On Sunday, Egypt helped broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and on Monday Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr made clear that recalling Egypt’s ambassador from Israel was never on the table.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet elected not to escalate things in Gaza, opting for restraint.

But the ingredients for instability remain firmly in place: Hamas in control of Gaza, an Egypt more susceptible to popular sentiment against Israel and a Sinai Peninsula where terrorists may exploit the lack of security to stage attacks against Israel.

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